Let’s start with the worst part: the Panama Canal. Or as I like to call it the Panama Banal, because Jesus, this is nothing. My father has taken me to gutted New Jersey construction sites more interesting than this landmark. The worst middle school field trip is better than watching the 15-minute video where they explain to you how dams work. If you opt for the full experience, prepare for the appalling moment after you’ve shelled out your $15, only to turn the corner and learn that the dirty brown water you were looking at from the ticket booth is the whole canal. Tourists mill about, projecting a shared quiet fury while the native Panamanians smile beatifically, knowing they’ve gotten some small payback for the hundred years we used military force to maintain US possession of a canal clearly within their jurisdiction. Now that they’ve gotten it back, boy are they proud of this thing.
Neither the fact of its hideousness or their nonexistent role in its construction (a tag team effort between us and the French, who in typical fashion, gave up halfway through for a long lunch) will keep Panama’s City’s six Uber drivers from bragging about the canal. This starts to make sense after a few conversations with locals in which they explain how the canal’s revenue is responsible for all the new, cool shit that’s popping up in the metropolitan city center, including but not limited to “The Spiral”, a delightful high-rise shaped like a duck penis and Frank Gehry’s stunning BioMuseo, straddling the Atlantic and Pacific. That money is also behind the restoration of Casco Viejo, the city’s vibrant old quarter, where you can see the inside of moldering buildings from the top of the newly renovated American Trade Hotel. The progress is everywhere, but it hasn’t yet extinguished the haze of wildness and eroticism that hangs over Casco Viejo. Everyone is sweating, bright pink and yellow paint is flaking off the buildings, no one uses addresses and stray cats roam the streets. There are British tourists taking their family on “year at sea” and white girls from LA who may or may not have eaten most of their meals at the Ace Hotel. In other words, get there quickly while the ratio of street cats to Reformation crop tops is right in the sweet spot.
Once you’ve done that, get yourself on a terrible plane to Bocas del Toro. Drink the free rum to combat the turbulence, then ride your buzz into a very humid club so you can watch a couple have sex while they’re high on cocaine provided by the local narcos. Keep moving, because you’ve seen enough of that. Get on a speedboat and go to a private island. You deserve it after what you’ve been through. Arrive in Urraca, a magical nine room eco-lodge built atop a handful of mangrove trees less than an hour from Bocas. You did not die on that tin shitbox they called a plane, but you ARE in heaven. Unlike the real, worse heaven where you are met at the gates by a judgemental guy with a book, you are greeted by Francine, twelve monkeys, and a piña colada. You’ll also meet Quezo, a kinkajou who loves eating carrot cake off a fork while hanging upside down from a chandelier.
Choose your activity from here – you can’t go wrong. Perhaps you want to jump off the deck of your watermelon pink bungalow into the bathwater temperature ocean or have a second piña colada (pro tip: get an inner tube and do both simultaneously). Maybe you wish to gaze lovingly at a howler monkey named Chongo, who in turn will proudly expose his gigantic balls to you. You can read in a hammock, take an outdoor shower while gazing into the sunset, or eat some of Francine’s fantastic food that her small staff caught, just for you, half an hour ago. By the time you leave you will have done all of these things. What you will have not done is lift a finger, brush your teeth (because a monkey stole it from your bag and used it as a dildo) or complain about anything. While in Urraca you’ll be overcome with a sense of warmth, satisfaction and carelessness rivaled only by distant memories of being in utero. When this happens and you begin to worry you can’t come back from this, consider getting your captain (you have one!) to take you through the jungle to a batcave, where you can spelunk among thousands of bats and their shit. There are spiders in the cave too and they are huge. They are so, so very big and they will remind you that the world outside Urraca is a scary and horrible place, but for now you’re in heaven. So why not another piña colada?